One of the most common inquiries I get through this blog is from people wondering how they can transition from their current position to product management. I usually take the time to send honest and constructive feedback to each inquiry, so I figured it was time to write a blog post on the topic. My short answer to this question, based on my own journey and subsequent experience, is:
Demonstrate earned leadership that’s resulted in measurable impact, combined with a handful of relevant skills.
As a PM, you’re responsible for owning a narrative and successfully leading a team which will execute on this narrative. To do this effectively, you’ve got to have solid leadership skills combined with tangible skills such as design sense, data analysis, and an understanding of how things are built.
Here’s an overview of my career before my first product role:
- I practiced law for several years as a litigator handling multi-district litigation. I was admitted to practice in the United States Supreme Court. I was named a Top 100 Trial Lawyer. And I managed teams working on complex litigations. I spent years slaving over clinical trials, which meant learning about statistics, statistical significance, p-values, and confounding variables. The last trial I worked on resulted in a $9 billion verdict, which apparently was the 7th largest verdict in U.S. history. As I said, being a good PM is about being able to articulate a narrative that makes sense — a skilled litigator is able to leverage various data points to articulate a cohesive story to a jury.
- I spent the last two years of my legal practice learning to code. I taught myself front end through Treehouse and other online resources, and learned WordPress to manage a travel blog I created. I started doing freelance work for friends who needed websites. I took CS50 at Harvard through edX, which taught me the basics of data structures and C. I learned how to use Photoshop and other design tools. I learned analytics tools such as Google Analytics to better manage my travel blog. I blogged here while I learned to code.
- I quit my job in 2014 and attended Flatiron School, a coding bootcamp in New York City, where I learned Rails. I went rogue on the curriculum and instead started building apps early. I deployed around 8 Sinatra and Rails apps before the program was over with fully designed front ends. I built an online portfolio to showcase my apps. I blogged here throughout my time at Flatiron.
When I started applying for product jobs, I faced a ton of rejection. Recruiters wouldn’t speak to me because I didn’t have “product manager” on my resume. Cold applications went unanswered or were rejected. I worked my network hard to get interviews, and that’s where most of my leads came from. I had a referral to Microsoft Yammer, passed the homework assignment and initial interviews, and was flown out to San Francisco for the final loop. Two weeks later, I was told they hired someone with more experience.
Another FANG company would not interview me for a product role, even with a referral, and insisted I interview for an engineering position. The recruiter said that because I had never been a PM, I hadn’t demonstrated my ability to take a product from inception through completion. Oddly enough, another recruiter from the same company reached out to me about a PM role a few weeks later (after I’d already accepted a position), and I completed the phone screen and initial interview before starting my new job.
I had a friend who was a Senior PM at Yahoo in Los Angeles when Dollar Shave Club reached out to her. She was pregnant at the time, not looking to change jobs, and referred me. The VP of Product thought my background was interesting (successful legal career including management experience, coding and design skills, eCommerce background at J.Crew, ability to effectively communicate product specs, etc.), and agreed to a call with me. After three calls and a final loop at their office outside LA, I accepted my first product job. Dollar Shave Club was acquired by Unilever for $1 billion a year later, and the things I learned throughout my two years there were invaluable. I am now a product manager at Facebook.
I like to be open about everything I’ve done, and about the initial rejection I faced, for a few reasons. First, to stress that there’s no easy answer to how you can land your first product job. Second, to demonstrate that you may need to put in a lot of hard work to learn new skills. Third, to show that rejection is part of the process — we all face it, it shouldn’t discourage you, and it’s rarely an indicator of future success.
I know my story is unique, so I want to provide some tactical actions you can take to better your chances of successfully landing your first product job.
Tangible Skills: Design, Coding, Data
It’s difficult to be a great PM without at least a rudimentary understanding of what it takes to build a product. This includes everything including the design of the product, how the product is built, and how to measure the product’s success.
You don’t have to be able to design a full website, but being able to understand enough about the design process to know what makes a good design is critical. You don’t have to be a solid engineer, but an interest in technology and an understanding of how things are built is critical. You don’t need to be a whiz with SQL, but understanding how to measure the success of your product is critical. These are all skills which will help you land your first product job, and aid you in executing that job. However, none of these are a silver bullet to becoming a product manager — they’re more like minimum requirements. You’ll still be evaluated based on your product sense, leadership, and prior impact.
A note on learning to code. There is a big difference between knowing how to write code and understanding the development process. No one wants me writing code these days. However, building applications and working as an engineer gave me a deep understanding of the development process and the issues that surface throughout that process. Concepts like databases, front end and back end technologies, APIs, web security, and operating systems are things you’ll discuss regularly. Having an interest and understanding of these things is important.
General Background and Experience
There are several things you can do to enhance your experience or highlight your knowledge prior to applying for product jobs:
- Experience with product management / technology in some capacity
- Tangible actions to establish credibility (blogging, building things, publishing code on GitHub, etc.)
- Domain knowledge (i.e. eCommerce experience in another role if you want to be a PM at an eCommerce company)
- Leadership by influence that’s resulted in measurable impact (do something – people like to hire people who have demonstrated that they can succeed in a variety of capacities)
Experience with product management / technology. Tech is an exciting industry right now. However, the role of a product manager can be difficult to understand if you’ve never worked in technology. If you do not currently work in tech (as an engineer, designer, data scientist, etc.), attempting to transition into product management probably requires some interim action or role to bridge the gap.
Tangible actions to establish credibility. Whether or not you are currently working in a technical capacity, there are actions you can take to help build your credibility and demonstrate your success as a PM. These include designing and building applications, publishing your code or portfolio online, and blogging about technology topics that interest you. You could also blog about product improvements or ideas you have. Product is an inherently difficult role to hire for, so anything you can do to demonstrate your ability to execute and give someone something tangible to evaluate is positive (it also demonstrates your interest in and dedication to the role).
Domain knowledge. Having domain knowledge of your product will also help (i.e. you work in finance and now want to be a PM at a FinTech startup so you can improve the products you worked with). Understanding the domain and the needs of the end user is critical to product management, and domain knowledge can help you transition into a PM role in a familiar area.
Leadership by influence. As a PM, especially at companies with a bottom-up approach, you’ll be responsible for setting the vision for your product, and getting buy-in for that vision. This means convincing folks from engineering, design, marketing, research, etc. Demonstrating the ability to lead by influence, and having a history of leadership that has resulted in measurable impact, can help you demonstrate your ability to succeed as a PM.
- Work your network
- Suggest ideas
- Try an early stage startup
- Transfer internally
Work your network. Referrals will be your best advocate when attempting to change roles. With that said, at some companies, the referral tool asks specific questions about how the referrer knows the person they are referring, their work history, and how well they feel they understand the candidate’s qualifications and skills. Therefore, it’s worthwhile to ask for referrals from people who know you well, or to spend time building relationships (meetup.com is a great resource for networking events).
Suggest ideas. This can work for cold applications, referrals, or internal transfers. If you must cold apply to a company, take a look at their product(s) and design a feature or optimization and send it with your resume — it could set you apart from a generic resume with no product experience. This could include a business plan or simple mocks. If you’re thinking about an internal transfer, you should know enough about your company’s products and have access to enough information to put together a pitch for a new product or feature.
Try an early stage startup. I was advised as I was applying for product positions that an early stage startup may be more willing to take a chance on a new PM (I’m not sure how true this is). With that said, if you’re the only PM, you may not learn best practices and you may lack mentorship. The best thing you can do for yourself when you transition into any new role is to go someplace with strong mentorship.
- Be able to articulate why you want to be a product manager
- Be able to articulate your value add
Articulate why you want to be a PM, and your value add. This is the most important advice in this article. You need to PM yourself like you would PM your product. Being a great PM is about being able to craft a narrative, and get buy-in for that narrative. You need to think of yourself and your career in the same way. What’s your narrative, and why should people buy it?
There is definitely an advantage to PMs who come from different backgrounds and perspectives, so you have to ask yourself — what makes you special? What value can you add based on your unique background that distinguishes you from other people? What have you done that demonstrates an understanding of the role and a true desire to perform well in that role?
This is the first question I ask when someone contacts me about wanting to be a PM, and I’ve gotten some bad answers. Wanting to build things but being unable to code is not a good answer. It’s great that you enjoy working in a cross-functional capacity, but there are a lot of roles that allow someone to work cross-functionally. Why product?
Compare the foregoing to an answer like: “I was a data analyst and realized that every time I pulled data, I was making recommendations about new features based on the data. Transitioning to product allowed me to play a more active role in the direction of the products I was working on.” Or “I used to work in finance, but realized the tools we were using weren’t user friendly. There are so many changes I would make to improve these programs.” These answers demonstrate a specific reason for wanting to be a PM, and also indicate what someone can bring to the role (solid understanding of data or financial tools).
There is no clear path to becoming a PM, especially since different companies value different skills (i.e. some are more CS-focused while others are more MBA-focused). Ultimately, you have to choose what will best highlight your current skillset and make your overall package most compelling.
If you have reviewed this article and still have questions, feel free to contact me through the contact form on this blog.
Latest posts by Koren Leslie Cohen (see all)
- How to Transition into Product Management - December 26, 2017
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